Diet, herbs, vitamins, and more

Epilepsy is a condition in which disruption to electrical activity in the brain results in seizures. Some people suggest that cannabis, acupuncture, and essential oils are effective natural remedies for seizures.

However, epilepsy is a complex condition. People should discuss any natural remedies with a doctor before using them, as some options may not be safe or effective for everyone.

In this article, learn more about some of the non-drug options available for managing seizures with epilepsy.

There is currently no cure for most types of epilepsy.

However, several treatment methods exist to help manage the condition. Despite this, some people do not respond well to antiepileptic drugs, which may also cause side effects. Surgery may be an option for others, but this is not always possible.

Also, around 80% of people with epilepsy live in lower income countries, where antiepileptic medications may be either unavailable or too expensive to buy.

For these and other reasons, some people seek alternative, complementary, and non-drug therapies.

Some people use cannabis products to help treat convulsions. Preliminary scientific evidence suggests that it may help reduce seizures for some people with certain types of epilepsy.

In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Epidiolex, which is a drug containing a cannabis-based ingredient, to treat seizures that stem from two rare and severe genetic conditions: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. This is currently the only cannabis-based product with FDA approval, and it is only available with a prescription.

In addition, some anecdotal evidence suggests that some people use cannabis or products containing cannabidiol (CBD) to help manage their seizures.

However, larger scientific studies have not shown that cannabis and most CBD-based products are effective in treating epilepsy. There is also a risk of serious side effects, including worsening epilepsy or interactions with antiepileptic drugs or other medications.

For this reason, people should speak with a doctor before using these substances. Additionally, cannabis and CBD are not legal in all states, so people should also check their local regulations before purchasing a product containing either of these substances.

Is CBD legal?The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the legal definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act. This made some hemp-derived CBD products with less than 0.3% THC federally legal. However, CBD products containing more than 0.3% THC still fall under the legal definition of marijuana, making them federally illegal but legal under some state laws. Be sure to check state laws, especially when traveling. Also, keep in mind that the FDA has not approved nonprescription CBD products, and some products may be inaccurately labeled.

There is some evidence to suggest that a ketogenic, or keto, diet — which is a high fat, low carbohydrate diet — could help prevent seizures in people who do not find antiepileptic drugs effective.

The diet causes ketosis, which is the chemical breakdown of proteins in the muscles. This suppresses seizure activity.

Research suggests that this diet can reduce the frequency of seizures in some people with epilepsy and help them think more clearly. However, the diet is very restrictive, and most people find it difficult to follow.

Learn more about whether the keto diet can help treat epilepsy.

Many people around the world use herbal remedies for epilepsy. They may do this because herbal remedies are easy to obtain or because they cannot access professional healthcare.

The author of a 2021 review looked at how ingredients in plants and herbal remedies, such as coumarin and flavonoids, might benefit people with epilepsy.

They considered their effect on:

However, there were no studies specifically showing an effect on epilepsy in humans.

Some substances in the various herbs could potentially interact with the body, including:

  • Salvia miltiorrhiza, or red sage
  • curcumin, which is present in turmeric
  • resveratrol, which is an antioxidant present in grapes and other plants
  • Acorus tatarinowii, which is an herb used in Chinese medicine
  • Aniba candelilla, or Kunth, which is also known as precious bark
  • Uncaria rhynchophylla, or cat’s claw
  • American ginseng
  • Silybum marianum, or milk thistle

However, these findings do not mean that taking any of these herbs will cure or treat epilepsy. Far more research is needed to confirm how they work, if they are effective, and whether or not there are any risks.

Currently, there are no known dosage, frequency, or mode of delivery recommendations for using these herbs to reduce seizures in humans.

Herbal remedies containing ingredients that could interact with antiepileptic drugs or make seizures worse include:

People should note that the FDA does not monitor the quality of herbs and supplements, and it does not guarantee their safety for specific conditions. So, individuals should not use any herbs or supplements for epilepsy without first speaking with a doctor.

There is a lack of research into how supplementing with vitamins might help people with epilepsy.

An older review from 2007 considered the following supplements in relation to epilepsy:

In 2016, some scientists proposed further research into vitamin D3 to help reduce seizures, but more work is still needed.

Some deficiencies may have links with seizures. In the 2007 review, people who had tonic-clonic seizures were more likely to have low magnesium levels than those who did not, and people with very low levels had more severe seizures more frequently. Doctors use magnesium as a treatment for certain neurological conditions.

Some research included in the review suggested that people with epilepsy may have lower levels of certain nutrients — such as folic acid, vitamin D, or calcium — as well as higher cholesterol levels. However, there could be various reasons for this, including medication side effects. It does not imply that taking more of those nutrients will reduce seizure frequency.

If a person is deficient in any nutrients, they may need supplements to reach a healthy level. People should speak with a healthcare professional before taking any dietary supplements.

When antiepileptic drugs do not work, some people use biofeedback therapy to reduce seizures. Biofeedback is a medical technique that helps a person recognize changes in their body. Based on this, they can develop ways to respond that can minimize the chance of experiencing a seizure.

For example, if the person feels a seizure aura — which can occur just before a seizure — they might sit down or go to a safe place. If they have light-induced seizures, they might be able to look away in time to prevent the seizure from happening.

A 2018 study looked at how 12 sessions of biofeedback spread over 4 weeks affected 40 people with temporal lobe epilepsy whose conditions did not respond to drugs. Overall, their seizures decreased by 43%, and 45% of the participants found that their seizures reduced by 50% or more.

Biofeedback is a noninvasive therapy that shows promise for people with epilepsy, but it needs more research. It involves using a machine that detects electrical activity in the brain, using this information to learn how to recognize the warning signs of seizures, and training the brain to prevent seizures.

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) involves implanting a device in the chest that sends electrical signals to the brain. It sends well-calibrated, mild, regular electrical signals to the vagus nerve, and these signals calm those that lead to seizures.

The effect of VNS varies widely among people with epilepsy. Some people see a significant improvement, while others do not find that it helps. It usually begins to have effects right after surgery, but it can sometimes take up to a year to make a difference, according to the Epilepsy Society. It is also unlikely to stop seizures completely.

According to research from 2020, 50–60% of those who undergo VNS for epilepsy may see a reduction in seizures of about 50% in 2–4 years, and 8% may stop having seizures entirely.

Before starting VNS treatment, a person may need to undergo testing to see if they have the type of seizures that are likely to respond to VNS. This improves the likelihood of the technique being effective.

For people with epilepsy, stress and anxiety may increase the risk of having a seizure.

Relaxation strategies can help people feel calm, relax the muscles, and improve sleep.

According to the Epilepsy Society, some relaxation techniques that may help include:

  • Indian head massage, which is a massage of the head, shoulders, and arms
  • whole or partial body massage
  • shiatsu
  • acupressure

Deep breathing and meditation may also help, but they can affect electrical signals to the brain. People with epilepsy should find a qualified practitioner who can train them appropriately.

As interest grows in neurostimulation therapies for epilepsy, some researchers believe that acupuncture could help.

An acupuncturist inserts very fine needles into specific places on the body. They then leave them there for a few minutes or as long as 30–40 minutes, according to the Epilepsy Society. In theory, this affects the energy channels in the body.

A 2023 review of research found that acupuncture may be useful for treating epilepsy alongside conventional treatment, like medications. However, the researchers highlighted that further more conclusive evidence is necessary.

Seizures happen when there is an imbalance in the levels of neurotransmitters, such as the stimulant glutamate and the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Scientists call the imbalance in these chemicals an electrical paroxysmal depolarization shift (PDS). This shift is what causes epileptic activity.

Certain events and activities can trigger such a shift. Knowing and avoiding their triggers may help people reduce the risk of experiencing a seizure.

Some common triggers include:

  • a lack of sleep
  • stress
  • exposure to flashing lights, 3D films, or virtual reality, for people with photosensitive epilepsy
  • the use of alcohol or drugs, including medications
  • not taking medication for epilepsy

Anyone, in theory, can experience a seizure. For example, people without epilepsy can experience febrile seizures, psychogenic nonepileptic seizures, and other types of seizures in response to an infection, stress, a stroke, or a head injury.

However, people with epilepsy have more frequent seizures because they have a higher tendency to experience PDS.

Additionally, some seizures can occur with no apparent trigger.

Learning about epilepsy may improve quality of life for people who have seizures and their families.

Research from 2023 suggests that education can help people with several aspects of the condition, including:

  • knowing what to expect
  • understanding why seizures happen and how their treatment works
  • recognizing and managing triggers
  • establishing an individual treatment plan by working with healthcare professionals
  • talking with friends and others about epilepsy and helping reduce stigma in communities

The authors of one study suggest that, globally, many people still believe that epilepsy is a psychological condition rather than a neurological one. This lack of knowledge can lead to misunderstandings and errors in treatment.

Some of the ingredients in essential oils can cross the blood-brain barrier, which means that they may be either helpful or harmful, depending on the substance.

Oils that may help

If an essential oil contains ingredients that can help a person sleep or reduce stress, it may help prevent seizures by alleviating certain triggers.

According to a 2019 review, oils from plants belonging to the Cymbopogon family (which includes lemongrass and citronella) and the Acorus family (which includes sweet flag) may have this property.

Lavender may help people relax, is likely safe for people with epilepsy to use, and may also have anticonvulsant properties.

However, these are not a substitute for antiepileptic drugs, and more studies are needed to confirm that they are safe and effective for managing epilepsy. People should always speak with a doctor before using them.

Oils to avoid

Some scientists note that camphor and eucalyptus may trigger seizures in people with epilepsy. For this reason, they warn against using these oils.

Some oils contain a substance called thujone, which can trigger seizures. Such oils include:

It is not always possible to know exactly which ingredients an essential oil product contains. Even a pure oil can contain a range of chemicals, not all of which may be beneficial.

People should seek advice from a qualified practitioner who knows about the interaction between essential oils and epilepsy before using any such product and to learn about the most appropriate way of using the oils.

Learn more about what aromatherapy involves and whether there are any risks.

Although research suggests essential oils may have some health benefits, it is important to remember that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor or regulate the purity or quality of these oils. A person should talk with a healthcare professional before using essential oils and research the quality of a particular brand’s products. It is also important to always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

Around the world, many people seek spiritual healing for epilepsy. This includes wearing amulets and visiting faith healers. Reasons for this may include a lack of access to professional healthcare, including medication, and a fear of experiencing adverse effects from antiepileptic drugs.

There is some evidence to suggest that yoga, prayer, and other faith-based activities can help reduce stress, which can trigger seizures.

However, epilepsy is a neurological condition with physical causes. For those with access to medical help, faith-based healing can offer a complementary approach, but it is not an alternative to medical treatment.

More work is needed worldwide to bring practical medical help to people with epilepsy in countries where many people have a low income.

For many alternative and natural remedies, there is some research and anecdotal evidence to support their use. However, there are not enough scientific studies to prove that they work.

For those who have access to medical care, it is best to start by visiting a doctor. Two-thirds of people find that treatment with antiepileptic drugs reduces the frequency and severity of their symptoms.

Those who are keen to try natural and alternative remedies should speak with a doctor about the options to check that they are safe to use. Epilepsy is a complex condition, and there are many types. The doctor can help make a plan that suits the individual.

Around the world, complementary, alternative, and non-drug remedies for epilepsy range from learning as much as possible about the condition to herbal remedies and faith healing.

Some of these have research to support their use, but others may not be effective. Some, such as misusing herbal remedies, may even be dangerous.

Most importantly, people should always talk with a doctor before trying natural treatments to help ease their symptoms.

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